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The Chinese golf courses that don’t officially exist

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. 

Playground for the rich: Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai. Photo: Alessandro Rizzi/Luz/Eyevine
Playground for the rich: Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai. Photo: Alessandro Rizzi/Luz/Eyevine

The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream
Dan Washburn
Oneworld, 316pp, £12.99

 

Zhou Xunshu grows up in a very poor village in China, tending the family oxen. Without knowing anything about the sport, he becomes a security guard at a posh golf course. He falls for the game. Training secretly, he turns himself into a golf pro and coach. He buys a flat in Chongqing, a city that grows by the day. Then he returns to the village to persuade his aged peasant parents to come and live with him.

The parents aren’t keen to move. Over food, tobacco and corn wine, they argue the matter into the night. “The conversation droned on,” writes the American journalist Dan Washburn in one of the best passages of his book on golf in China. These were “different versions of the same arguments that had been made hundreds of times before” – or more accurately, taking a pan-China view, millions of times.

At 2am, the father finally agrees to move. The next day, writes Washburn, the parents “stuffed their most important belongings into plastic rice sacks and cardboard fruit boxes. They didn’t pack photos or family heirlooms – they had none of these. They packed sugar, preserved pork, heads of garlic . . .” (Washburn is a little too fond of detail.) The next thing they know, they are sitting on Zhou’s sofa in Chongqing, watching TV.

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. Washburn, the managing editor of the Asia Society in the US, was a reporter in China when he began covering golf tournaments. A Stakhanovite worker, he spent years trekking to the least glamorous corners of the country and has ended up with interlinked portraits of three men touched by the rise of golf in China.

One is Zhou, the journeyman pro. The second is Martin Moore, an American builder of golf courses who ended up in China because that’s where courses were getting built. And the third is Wang Libo, “a lychee farmer on China’s tropical Hainan Island”, whose life changed after a developer chose Wang’s village as the site of the world’s largest golf complex.

Golf proves an excellent lens through which to view contemporary China. That’s partly because, in a very Chinese way, the boom in golf course construction was illegal and officially never happened. The courses eat up farmland and are stages for ostentatious displays of wealth, often by government officials. The sport conveys wealth and ease in China in a way that it doesn’t any more in the west. That is why many new Chinese rich are keen to live on golf resorts.

Indeed, most golf courses in the country are built chiefly in order to sell luxury homes. Washburn quotes a billboard for golf villas with the slogan “Leading the dance of business philosophy, one villa can conquer the world”. (Professionally, golf remains a minor sport but some young Chinese golfers, often from rich backgrounds, are attracting international notice – especially Guan Tianlang, who at last year’s US Masters, aged 14, became the youngest player to make the cut in a major championship.)

The rich man’s game is embarrassing to the Communist Party, especially when played by officials with “golf tans”, and so Beijing issues periodic edicts against the building of new courses. These edicts rarely affect what happens on the ground. Washburn quotes a typically excellent Chinese proverb: “The mountain is high and the emperor is far away.” Local officials like selling land for golf courses because they personally pocket much of the proceeds. Washburn explains that, in a residue of communism, “The government owns all land in China; villagers just lease it.” Those who lose their land typically get fobbed off with small sums.

Golf is just one of the forces driving them off their land. Many peasants are understandably upset. “Of the 187,000 mass demonstrations reported in China in 2010,” Washburn writes, “65 per cent were related to disputes over land.” One American golf-course worker describes a typical protest: “They always come out with their machetes. There’ll be 30 little women and they’ll all start screaming Hainanese and shaking their machetes and yelling at you.” Generally, the bulldozers win.

The conflicts are particularly acute in Hainan, which Beijing hopes to convert into a Hawaiian-style tourist paradise with lots of golf. A course developer offers villagers payouts for their ancient houses. Wang Libo takes the money. He opens a little shop to feed the labourers who have come to staff the new complex. The shop thrives. Soon, he opens a restaurant. Like the golfer Zhou, Wang gains a shaky foothold in China’s middle classes – a slice of the “Chinese dream”.

In probably no other country have ordinary people’s lives changed so much in the past 30 years. Here, the difference between a person’s childhood and adulthood is often almost unfathomable. It is hard to feel nostalgia for the country the Chinese have left behind. Zhou’s father-in-law recalls how, as a child in Mao’s China, he was sometimes “so constipated from not eating enough fibre that his father had to use a finger to dig the faeces out of him”. No wonder that “Ni chi fan le ma?” – which translates as “Have you eaten?” – remains a common greeting in China.

But inevitably, with all the changes, much has been lost. The environment is being destroyed. For the Hainan golf complex, the developers cut down a mountain and turned it into a lake. In Wang’s village, those who accepted compensation for their homes and those who didn’t stop talking to each other. In almost too perfect a closing set piece, Wang sits under the phoenix tree where villagers used to gather every evening and muses: “I had thought that the volleyball matches would continue no matter what development came here. I never thought things like chess or even just nighttime chatting between villagers would disappear so quickly. And I think in the near future all of the old stone houses will be replaced.” Zhou’s parents are even less fond of progress: after just a fortnight in Chongqing, they flee back to their village.

This book is probably worth the years Washburn put into it and the nights he spent sharing cheap hotel rooms with Zhou on China’s golf tour. You just wish he were a more natural stylist and storyteller. He knows that a book needs characters so he has tracked them like a stalker and he diligently slathers on the colour. No detail is omitted: “It was brutally hot – reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), with 82 per cent humidity – and Zhou slogged his way through the front nine. He was two over at the turn . . .” American writers tend to over-research; the British do the opposite.

Washburn’s stories meander. But they lead, eventually, to an illuminating portrait of modern China.

Simon Kuper’s books include “Soccernomics” (HarperSport, £8.99), co-written with Stefan Szymanski